Sunday, 30 December 2007

Journey at a word's notice

Gala_flamenca I relish research. That’s a confession. It’s one of many aspects of writing I love getting lost in. There’s something exciting and adventurous about exploring a word or a phrase or a reference and suddenly finding yourself in new territory: rediscovering ideas, concepts; tracing their origins; charting the passages between one place another; creating connections and making these new places your own---anything that broadens the horizons.

For example, when putting together an early draft of The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, I used the word ‘flamenco’ to suggest a style of dancing that takes place in one scene. Though only intended as a passing comment, the moment I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was really appropriate or not, and whether I could leave it in or not, and so, before I could say ‘Burke and Wills’ or ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’, I'd reached for the reference books and was engaged upon a major expedition that I haven’t yet returned from.

My trusty two volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary noted the first recorded use of the word ‘flamenco’ in the English language as 1896 and identified a connection with the Spanish for ‘flamingo’ (which made a kind of sense with the bird’s ‘bright scarlet plumage, long and slender legs and neck’). It also noted that it’s a ‘Spanish gipsy style of singing or dancing’. However, my Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary made the more popular qualification that the word derives from ‘Flemish’ (and a belief that gipsies were Flemish in origin). Regardless of this, I’d begun browsing now and couldn’t help but notice a few convenient definitions for the word ‘flame’, which was sitting comfortably nearby in both books:

  • ‘The condition of visible combustion’;
  • ‘A bright beam or ray of light’;
  • ‘A burning feeling or passion’;
  • ‘The object of one’s love’;
  • ‘To move as or like flame’;
  • ‘To kindle, inflame, excite, animate’.

All this was good stuff and felt relevant to the way the story was heading at that time, but I hadn’t learnt much about the nature of flamenco dance---the rhythm, the gestures, the mood, the music----and so I left the books behind and set sail across Google.

Three days later ... well, I won’t take you through the initial stages of the journey, but from many sites I visited along the way I learnt this form of dance grew from song, and that the songs originally recorded tales of the oppressed and the under-dog, and that the passion and the fire and the mournfulness were all an integral part of flamenco and had been through the centuries, and that the song was often accompanied by guitar. The site http://www.answers.com/topic/flamenco was a particularly useful place to visit and a fine staging post to other sites, such as http://www.flamenco-world.com/magazine/about/que_es_flamenco/indice11112004.htm . The more I discovered, the more I wanted to listen to flamenco music, to click my fingers and shout “Olé” along to the tune of it, to eat paella and tapas, olives and soft cheeses, and to spend time in Andalusia. And some of that I’ve done, and some of that I’m yet to do.

Went to see Gala Flamenca perform in Melbourne a few weeks back, on tour from Spain. They were stunning, colourful, fiery, passionate, mournful, seductive, entertaining, and left me feeling content that I’d taken a closer look at the meaning of the word ‘flamenco’ when I was working on that early draft, even if it was only a word to use in passing. Olé!

This excerpt is taken from a film by Carlos Saura, which I haven't yet seen, and which I only discovered whilst putting this post together (another journey), but I'll be looking to get hold of a copy now. Thought it was a nice example and I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Of A Sea Lion

Sea_lion_and_pod I’d fully intended this post would be about the books I’ve read recently, and started getting my thoughts together on this, when these best laid plans went happily astray. Life got in the way.

Jogging along the beach this morning, I came upon a sea lion. At first I thought he was dead, because he was flat out and because we occasionally get dead seals, stingrays and fairy penguins washing up, particularly after a storm, and because he wasn’t moving. So it goes. However, although he mightn’t have been feeling crash hot, he took a deep breath as I looked at him and he blinked an eye to get rid of the flies swarming his face. Beached, injured, dying perhaps, but still alive. A magnificent beast from a different world and a sight to behold.

It’s put everything else out of my head today and reminds me how much I enjoy living close to the sea where such things occasionally happen. More than this, it also reminds me of what I find important in the stories I enjoy reading and writing: where the extraordinary rises to the surface of the ordinary (so that what is extraordinary seems ordinary, and what is ordinary seems extraordinary). At one extreme, it’s why I enjoy the surreal diversions in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, or Murakami’s novels, and, at the other end of the spectrum, why I enjoy Tim Winton’s stories so much.

To my collection of such experiences, I’d love to add something my son witnessed a few months back: a killer whale (very rare in these waters) leaping into view a hundred metres off the lighthouse and then diving again. Or the pod of dolphins my wife watched one afternoon. But I can claim the occasion a New Zealand friend was staying with us and saying how she’d never seen a kangaroo in the wild, when one went hopping down the street a few seconds later (the first time we'd ever seen one so close to the house). However, and just to prove there’s an urban equivalent to these moments, I’ve held onto the memory of something I observed when I was in Melbourne last year: a blind woman---dark glasses, white cane tapping the pavement in front of her---wheeling a bicycle at her side. It stopped me in my tracks, and I waited to see if she’d mount the bike and start pedalling down the street, tapping the cane in front, but she never did.

I’ll never find out the rest of her story, although I wonder about it sometimes, but I was able to follow through on the sea lion. As soon as I reached home, I phoned a wildlife emergency number, and within fifteen minutes they’d returned the call to let me know that a vet had previously been called out to look at him, that they suspected he was suffering from a hernia or a tumour, but that they’d continue to check up on him. Later, I’ll head back to the beach to see whether he’s still there or has found his way back into the sea.

C'est la vie.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Cornerstones of writing

Duchamps_mona_lisa_lhcooq_2 Over at The View From Here, Mike is running a competition. He's in the process of posting a three-part interview with Helen Corner of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and is offering a prize for the best answer to the question: What do you think the four cornerstones of good writing are? This got me thinking and playing around with a few ideas, and of course it's always a challenge to know what to include and what to leave out when you're limited to four observations. How to prioritise? Why choose one thing and not another? Anyway, I had a go, and I've enjoyed the process if only because it's forced me to articulate my thinking about something that's an essential part of who I am. So here they are (rip them apart or suggest alternatives in the Comments box below, but put an entry into the competition at The View From Here too):

ENJOY. Write because you’re passionate about writing and because you get an addictive kick out of shaping ideas and images and stories from the written Sophocles word ... and from the silences created by the absence of the written word. Hopefully, such passion will sing and dance and grieve and shout from every word that’s written, which in turn will infect and affect the reader. Furthermore, try and discover all the reasons you want to write, and be wary if fame, fortune or revenge appears in any great measure.
READ widely (and wildly). Read everything, from ancient literature to contemporary literature; read the good, the bad and the ugly; read newspapers Will_shakespeare and graphic novels and poems and plays and telephone directories and bus tickets; read other people and read yourself (and call it observation, if you like); read the weather, read politics, read the critics. And be critical: of what you read and how it’s written, and of what you write or choose not to write, of how people think and communicate and fail to communicate. Read and be critical of language and form and convention, and what works at a given point in time, and what doesn’t work, or no longer works, and why.
SHOW, don’t tell. This may well be an over-stated cornerstone, but it makes it no less true, no less significant. If I were to have anything tattooed on my forehead (in mirror-writing of course) it would be: llet t’nob ,wohS . The most obvious of lessons, but the hardest thing to maintain.
KNOW that there are no new stories, only new ways of interpreting and retelling old ones. I find this a liberating and empowering cornerstone of Duchamps_mona_lisa_with_will_shakeswriting, because instead of struggling to invent a unique sequence of events that will force characters to interact in a unique way, I can focus instead on the telling of the story. I believe it’s important to know that it’s okay to borrow the basic dynamics of an idea from history or folklore or fairytales or whatever, from Shakespeare or Sophocles or whoever, because all storytellers build on borrowed stories. Stories reflect our cultural heritage and, whilst they often seem to end up in similar places (in terms of the resolution of conflict, and the growth of characters, or the view that’s presented of the world we’ve created for ourselves), it’s the adventure and the path we take towards each of these places that should be the most unique, interesting and compelling part of the journey.

PS. In searching for an image of Billy Shakespeare and Smiley Sophocles for this post, it struck me that dear old Will's portrait bore an uncanny resemblance to Marcel Duchamp's 'Mona Lisa with a Beard (L.H.C.O.O.Q.)', which is why she too appears here.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

GOVERNMENT HEALTH WARNING: This Post Almost Becomes Political

Img_2476_2 There are days in the summer, during January and February, when the thermometer sizzles past 43, 44 degrees Celsius, and there's little that can be done except wilt and wait. These are days to shut the windows and blinds, to prevent as much heat from breaking into the house as possible, to attempt anchoring shade cloth around the garden or watch hopelessly as tree fruit and vine fruit is scorched to useless. These are days when the clamour of the fire siren makes everyone draw a deep breath and peer towards the horizon for that tell-tale belt of smoke.

Whether at work or home, there's little that can be done except dream about paddling along the beach and splashing through the surf, and maybe swimming or snorkelling for an hour or two ... once the northerly has dropped, once the fierceness of the heat no longer prickles your skin and makes you feel you might spontaneously combust if you stay out too long. There's little that can be done except sit still and drink iced water and wait.

We wait for the doctor. We wait for the change. And we learn to listen for it, to know when it's arrived.

Some people call it 'the doctor', some people call it 'the change', but we're lucky here, along our stretch of coast, that we can almost rely on this most delicious respite at the end of such days. Invariably, with late afternoon or early evening, the hot desert winds from the north will abruptly pause, turn and meekly surrender to a fresher, cooling breeze that skips across the Southern Ocean from the south-west. And people start calling out: "The change has arrived," or "The doctor's here," and strangers smile at one another again. It's time to open the blinds and the windows, to grab a chair and sit outside with a cold beer or white wine (or vodka and ice with a twist of lemon), and chat and breathe again. Later, couples and families might be seen wandering along the beach in the dark, splashing through the surf, playing ...

I am not a party-political creature, but this is the way I felt last night when the federal election result was announced.
A federal election affects the national psyche, creates a state of tension, anticipation, anxiety. But the change has arrived---it's over---and everyone can get on with their lives again. Phew! Relief!

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Following the Pied Piper

Although these posts pop up at casual, weekly intervals, there's a been a fair bit happening in Blogdom recently. It might seem quiet and relaxed here, but it ain't quiet out there. Busy, busy, busy. And that's not a whinge, because it's all good stuff. Good, busy stuff. The net is working overtime at networking.

Following the Grand Opening of my website (see last post), I was delighted by the number of links made to it and sing THANKS to everyone who created a connection. I must say a particular "Thank you" to Mike French, who very generously not only posted a comment about it on Go! Smell the flowers, which attracts a phenomenal 15,000 hits a month, but also (having received a good deal of recognition and a number of awards for his own blog The View From Here) gave this PaperBooks blog a Be The Blog award. Thank you, merci beaucoup, gracias & diolch yn fawr.

None of this, however, leads me into what I'd originally intended posting about this week. But, in acknowledging that, I'm lead (through an interesting obversion) into what I'd intended posting about this week: The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Black Juice.

The Pied Piper
was one of my favourite stories when I was a kid, and I recall having 'rewritten' it on a couple of occasions (in what might have been a juvenile recognition that there are few new stories, only new ways of telling old ones). The notion of someone playing a music so powerful that every living thing might follow, coupled with the idea of good triumphing over bad, were concepts I found appealing. Along with the touch of magic, and innocence masking wisdom, arrogance masking greed ... all that and more. In some versions the piper returned the children to Hamelin once he'd received payment for ridding the town of its rats, and in some versions he didn't: his revenge was absolute. These are the ingredients of folk tales and sometimes appear in stories I enjoy reading as an adult.

This perhaps is the reason I enjoy Margo Lanagan's short stories. I posted a comment a few weeks back about her Red Spikes anthology, and have followed Black_juice_and_pied_piper_rats this up by reading the superbly titled Black Juice. This time, though, I thought I should try and articulate a little more fully what it is about her writing that appeals. (Maybe, through recognising what we like in someone else's writing, it's possible to begin recognising what shapes our own writing.)

For sure, there are elements in some of her stories that might ordinarily turn me off, and it's probably because of this that I'm keen to identify what it is that makes me carry on reading. They can, at times, appear abstract to the point of making me feel obtuse, but, in part, it's the slightly disjointed feel that she creates when she positions the cosily familiar into these abstract scenarios that engenders their enchanting dream-like or nightmarish quality. Thus, in Singing My Sister Down, we have many of the trappings of a family picnic and a holiday outing set within the macabre situation of the narrator's sister being gently sung to her death as she sinks into a tar-pit---the punishment she meekly accepts for a crime she's committed. Because I often think visually, Lanagan's stories put me in mind of Chagall's paintings (where lovers are depicted floating through the air and houses may have eyes), or those of Hieronymus Bosch.

One of the interesting elements in both anthologies of stories is the sense that the reader's expectations are being challenged in every respect, from use of language to conventions of genre. Whilst it's easy to pull out labels like 'fantasy' or 'speculative fiction', this would be unwise with many of these pieces, for the author seems to delight in leading you towards one place and then letting you discover you're somewhere else, less comfortable, altogether ... like being in the middle of a tar-pit. And I love that about her work. However, like the best poetry, it's the way she uses and plays with language that really hooks my attention and leads me along. The thread which holds all these stories together and unfies them in their respective anthologies is the delight that Margo Lanagan obviously takes in naming things: objects, emotions, places, people, experiences. We discover accordions known as the House of the Three and the House of the Many, monsters by the name of yowlinins, an elephant called Booroondoonhooroboom. And even here, her etymology straddles the familiar and the unexpected, so we're left, as readers, feeling haunted at times by some of her word choices, sometimes guessing what the words suggest, but definitely taking notice of the music of the sounds and definitely being lead on by the tune of each story. Like good poetry, this writing makes me feel that, whilst I might not always be absolutely sure where I've ended up, the journey is always interesting.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

GRAND OPENING: www.paulburman.net


"So there I was, having scrambled over a couple of razor-capped fences to get into the ftp site, standing next to cgi bin (whatever that is) with a folder of html under my arm and my pockets spilling jpeg and gif images all over the place, when I felt this megabyte hit into my software ..."

Didn't think it was going to happen. It very nearly didn't. But it has.
The website is finished and uploaded: http://www.paulburman.net/

Talk about blood, sweat and tears, it took more than a megabyte of sanity, that's for sure. But it's there.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Think I'm transforming into a computer geek!

For the last three months or so, I've been trying to learn how to build a website.  My brother gave me a manual and a program he hadn't used, and I've been working my way through the thing trying to fathom it out.  But every time I began to get the hang of the process, I'd get caught up in doing something else for a few weeks and would forget all the key steps by the time I came back to it again.  And then I had problems with obtaining an Australian domain because Australian regulations prevent having a com.au or net.au unless the applicant is a listed business ... and Computer there are regulations and tax implications for listed businesses that suggest it wouldn't, at this point in time, be A Good Thing for me to do, but A Silly Thing instead.  (I looked into .com and all the rest, but it appears that people register domains and then do nothing with them, because these domains are identified as taken even though they're not active on the internet.)  However, I think I'm almost there.  I took a long run up yesterday and made a massive leap from working with jpeg images to gif images and, with it, everything began working the way I wanted it to.  Click.  Wow!  (What's happened to me?  The things I get excited about these days!)  Think I've got a domain name registered, but have to wait until start of business tomorrow to find out, and then I hope to launch a suitably author-like website.  And then ... and then ... and then I might actually get back to writing again.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The word

George Orwell tackled it in Nineteen Eighty-Four (in 1948) and Sir Humphrey Appleby was a master of it in Yes, Minister (circa 1980), but Newspeak or Bureauquackery is Performing_words_3still with us in 2007. However, maybe its days are numbered. The Victorian Department of Education, who hitherto have been a major sponsor in the promotion of Eduspeak (as they refer to it), have now withdrawn their support. In fact, they are running a Jargon Busting competition this month to identify and expunge Eduspeak, even though someone in the Department is still dreaming up project and division titles such as the Thinking Forward Design Teams Pilot Project and The Innovation and Next Practice Division (responsible for organising that even more tautological "new innovation initiative").

Whilst I get a kick out of playing with words and watching them perform little tricks, I don't get too precious if other people abuse them somewhat, because they're amazingly resilient mites after all and are determined to have the last laugh. It does concern me though when, as with Newspeak, people try to enslave them into serving a particular ideology or try annihilating them when they resist.

Supporting their resistance are the authors of the website Weasel Words
, which is well worth a visit and which may well bring a smile to your lips. It was here that I discovered the following description of an Arts conference: ‘... remapping cultural globalisms from the south is a conference project about the remapping of global orders, histories and cultural production from the perspective of a critical matrix positioned geographically south and outside the dominant hegemonies of European and North American traditions. This conference is positioned at the very edge of the politics of difference. The postcolonial space is a site where the experimental cultures of the periphery converge to define new modalities for cultural inclusion. The Conference functions as a set of dialogues between civilisations, in a project that begins with the assumption that the margins are redefining and transforming the worlds of the centre ... The Conference will move beyond the closure and limits of current definitions that continue to divide and separate, whilst engaging with the possibilities of new convergent positions and space of shared cultural experience and knowledge. Global multiculturalism is a key logic of the cultures of the future.’

Having mentioned Yes, Minister, it's only fair that I (almost) finish this post with a quote from Sir Humphrey before taking myself off to enter the Jargon Busting Competition in the hope of scabbing $50 from the Department of Education.

Sir Humphrey Appleby
: Minister, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position.

In the beginning was the word.

Long live the word!

Friday, 5 October 2007


Screen_shot_of_view_from_here_2 As noted in the last post, Mike French interviewed me recently for THE VIEW FROM HERE . The interview is now posted, so be my guest ... or rather, be Mike's guest and visit:


Screen_shot_of_view_from_here_3 Mike's blog is an interesting blend of book reviews, discussions about writing (including his development of The Dandelion Tree), art work, and now interviews. No more words needed here. Go visit.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Books, blogs, blokes and blondes

Guess I should fess up before anyone gets too disappointed that, whilst this post has something to do with books and blogs, it's really got nothing to say explicitly about blokes or blondes. It's just that, when I was thinking about a catchy title for this little beast, the four words melded together, and then I tried saying them fast, and then repeating them fast ten times, and then backwards ... and by the time I'd amused myself doing this sort of thing for an hour or two they'd sort of grown into the title of the post, and there was little I could do about it.

Seven weeks after starting the latest round of edits on The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, I think I'm almost done. Problem is, though, that after a break of four or five weeks, I'll see things I want to refine further. And will keep on doing this until I'm told I can't do any more. Hopefully, when the printed book is in my hand I'll be able to stop and won't feel inclined to scribble out words, replace paragraphs, etc. Maybe I just need to lock myself back into the next project.Have been a pretty tetchy reader of late, and reluctant to stick with books that don't grab me early on. Either this, or I've just been unlucky in what I've picked up. Couldn't make headway with Burning Bright (see 16/9/07) and didn't persevere; it felt like it was a Young Adults book (which I often enjoy) but mis-pitched at adults. Something didn't work for me. So I was a little concerned that a collection of short stories that was written and pitched for the YA market, and which had been highly recommended by a school librarian, might also leave me feeling short-changed.Margo Lanagan's Red Spikes is a Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers and, as my librarian friend noted, is "seriously weird". However, it's seriously weird in the best kind of way, and I couldn't help but Red_spikessee parallels between what Margo Lanagan does (with the subject matter and her use of language) and everything I enjoy about Angela Carter's short stories. It may well be aimed at the Young Adult market, but these stories have a much broader appeal than that. What I like most is that they seem to take our dreams, rip out the innocence we might associate them with and transplant them with something more enduring and sinister. Quite fantastic---in every sense. I took this anthology with me when I went to Robe, South Australia, for a short break recently, and it helped make the holiday a delight.STOP PRESS: In Googling Margo Lanagan to see if there's anything else I MUST include, I note there is: she has a blog. So click away. I also note---and no prizes for me here---the comparisons with Angela Carter have already been well and truly established. Must get hold of Black JuiceWhite Time next. and Apart from this, I've also been interviewed recently by Mike French for his blog The View From Here. I discovered Mike's blog in July (see Comments 30/7/07) and the approach he was taking to get The Dandelion TreeThe Snowing and Greening specifically) for his blogsite and this will be appearing soon. Watch this site. published. He generously extended an invitation to interview me recently (about writing generally and That's all for now, folks! Almost. But, if you haven't already done it, try saying fast, ten times: books, blogs, blokes and blondes. And then say it backwards.

How silly.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Print on demand

Print_on_demand_2 Perhaps it's because of the weird way my brain works (or doesn't work) that I've come to associate, at some point in the past, the term 'Print on Demand' with daylight robbery. In terms of the structure of the phrase, it seems closely related to such strings of words as 'Stand and Deliver' and 'Your Money or Your Life.' Whether it's simply the result of such word association or because I misunderstood something about it the first time I heard it mentioned, I've come to think of 'Print on Demand' as a Bad Thing.

I assumed the notion of being able to print off a single copy of a book was part of some dastardly plot hatched by computer nerds to undermine the time-honoured traditions of the publishing industry and, consequently, would make the industry even less interested in investing in new writers. I imagined that instead of having a print run of 2,000 or 5,000 or whatever, the idea was that a slice of a book could be accessed via the internet and, if someone wanted to read it, then they'd type in their credit card details and would have access to printing off a single copy through their own printer. The ideal solution for those heretics who refuse to embrace e-books! And if not exactly this, then I imagined it was something to do with bookshops no longer carrying stock as such and having a hole-in-the-wall ATM (or ABM) instead: swipe your card, choose your title, and wait for your book to be dispensed.

However, it seems that this is not the case and that I need to curb my imagination and that Print on Demand is in fact a Good Thing.

I was reading a back issue (spring 2007) of The Author recently and came across an illuminating article ('One small step') by Linda Bennett, who knows a good deal about the topic. Through this I learned that POD allows books to be printed (at printing houses) in small numbers amongst batches of other titles, and that most of the ramifications of this are positive:

  • allows publishers to run specialist titles because they don't have to invest in large print runs, which is good news for publishers and good news for specialist authors;
  • keeps titles in print because small orders can be more easily filled;
  • more rapidly responds to customer demand (if the warehouse is empty, it's not a matter of having to wait for enough backorders to justify a large print run) so fewer sales are lost;
  • may create efficiences that allow publishers to invest in additional titles and new authors.
It's been an interesting few months in this respect. Working towards getting The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore published (though not necessarily through POD) has led me in lots of different directions. Writing this blog and reading other blogs and chatting with other writers and kicking into Facebook and constructing a website (more on this another time) are all activities I had no idea I'd be involved in a few months back. It's been a steep learning curve at times, but the view's worth it.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Recent Reads

Have just about managed to get to the bottom of the pile of books I've been wanting to read or needing to read for a while. Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright kept getting pushed to the bottom of that pile, simply because other priorities took over, but I've finally made a start on this. William Blake apparently features in this story, which has made it something to look forward to because I've always been a fan of Blake. However, how it stacks up against Girl with a Pearl Earring will be interesting. It must be a tad nerve-wracking writing the next book after one has been so successful. No wonder Harper Lee decided to leave well alone after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Revisited Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr and still rate it as an all-time favourite. But also had a look at three Australian titles in the hope I could find one for a Literature booklist.BYPASS The Story of a Road by Michael McGirr is a delightful, humorous non-fiction account of the Hume Highway, which stretches from Melbourne to Sydney (or Sydney to Melbourne, depending which state you're from). It's a travelogue in a sense and put me in mind of Bill Bryson---but grittier. I'm not Bypass sure why it matters that Michael McGirr is an ex-Jesuit, but he mentions it himself and so does everyone else when they talk about this book, so I mention it too. I suppose this piece of information adds to our understanding of the man who's undertaking this journey and the stories that he uncovers and relates along the way. It's a nice touch citing bumper sticker slogans as epigraphs, and I found myself flicking through the book to read all of these in one go. (For instance: 'Your Carma Just Ran Over My Dogma'; 'The Older I Get, The Better I Was'; 'This Is No Time For The Present'.) Haven't finished Bypass yet, having decided it's not for The List but will keep it on hand as something to dip into and enjoy between other books.

The_rose_notesI probably wasn't in the right frame of mind for picking up The Rose Notes by Andrea Mayes, and gave it a couple of sessions but then gave up. Didn't feel like persevering. Found the narrator's voice a little too measured and old and intrusive, but I wasn't feeling patient at the time so may well have misjudged it. (Gave the book to someone else and they enjoyed it!)

The absolute gem of these three, however, and the book that I knew was going to be on my list before I'd read 20 pages is The Patron Saint of EelsThe_patron_saint_of_eels quote the blurb, Noel Lea 'longs for a time when life was less complex and unexpected magic seemed to permeate the ocean town and its people. When spring rains flood a nearby swamp and hundreds of eels get trapped in the grassy ditches ... he and (oldest friend) Nanette encounter the vibrant Fra Ionio and get more magic than they bargained for.' It's certainly a magical tale. by Gregory Day. Every once in a while there's a book that's worth giving up sleep for, that leaves you itching to carry on reading and that you know you're going to want to come back to read a second time at least, and this was one of them. To And with that, back to the editing.

Monday, 3 September 2007


Erasmus_with_eyeballs Editing, editing, editing ...

Love it. Nudging a word or two and watching the nuance of meaning shift a story even more in the direction it needs to go. Occasional delicious surprises.

Battling with new software, which pig-headely refuses to recognise Australian English and UK English, wanting to change everything to American English. Streuth!

And sleep---well, I've split each day into 26 units rather than 24 hours, but that doesn't seem to help. To misquote John Lennon: I've got blisters on my eyeballs!

And as for having to go earn a crust!!

Would spend the whole day putting words into characters' mouths if I could, and exploring their world, and getting inside their heads, and, and, and ...

But to do as much as I want, something else has to go, so all my other communications are getting reduced to short, staccato sentences and occasional outbursts of gibberish.

Editing, diting, ting! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Hyperfiction --- Boldly going where?

Though I've never been a fan, I could always appreciate the appeal of the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' genre. You know the sort: a basic framework for a story with three or four diversionary tracks the reader can follow:

  • If Noddy goes home to wash and wax his little yellow car, turn to page 78;
  • If Noddy summons up courage to ask Mrs Bear out to dinner at Chez Big Ears, turn to page 101;
  • If Noddy trades his car in, buys an AK47 on the Toy Town blackmarket and goes postal, turn to page 132.

Noddy_postal_1 If one pathway doesn't excite, then come back and try another. It's like getting three books in one, and might even be seen as the literary precursor to the video game, Nintendo 64, Xbox, etc. It certainly attracted a lot of kids into reading.

With this in mind, I thought I should overcome my prejudice about reading novel-length slabs of text on a monitor and get hold of some examples of hyperfiction, which I duly did a few months back. I'd come across a couple of excited articles about the wonderful potential of hyperfiction and wanted to sample them for myself, so loaded one on to my pc and one on to my work laptop, began flicking from page to page ... and felt my interest sink faster than a lead balloon. Since then, they've been sitting there, sulking or skulking on my hard drive, and I've failed to interest anyone else in having a read.


AfternoonQuarterly It isn't just the fact that these texts can only be viewed on screen, which kills my eyes, because if the hardware was any better this still wouldn't win me over. No, even with a hand-held digital book, I can't imagine being enthralled by the notion that what I have in front of me is not so much a story as an almost-endless series of permutations without direction: turn right if you like, or turn left, turn Turning_in_2Victory_garden_2 back if you're in the mood, jump forward perhaps, make your own choice, make another choice, read this character's thoughts, discover another character, and another, or another setting. Navigating the menu alone makes me feel as if the story-teller's craft has been sacrificed to creating endless links and cross-overs instead. Whilst a sense of design undoubtedly exists, the sense of being taken on a journey, the sense of purpose, has been replaced by the frustration of being left to wander in a random manner through an unnavigable maze.

But I also find it frustrating that I can't make more of the experience than this, so I'm posting this blog to see if anyone can enlighten me. Does anybody have a better experience with hyperfiction and, if so, how did you approach it? What did you get out of it? Help!

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Down at the Factory of the Imagination

Factory_of_the_imagination Here I am doing a spot of overtime down at the Factory of the Imagination. The machinery is humming fairly smoothly for the moment though, so I thought I'd take a late lunch-break and post a quick blog.

Yep, every lever in the place points to EDIT and the pistons are chattering: "the-snowing-and-greening-the-snowing-and-greening-the-snowing-and-greening..." All I have to do is make sure nothing seizes or wears loose and that no gaskets blow. Mind, these machines have been running full bore for several days now and the quality of engineering wasn't crash hot to begin with.

The other week, I was taking a break from the factory floor and decided to wander upstairs, along to MARKETING. They're a different breed up there, with a different outlook, and chewing the fat with the Marketing gurus made a pleasant change to the grinding of gears and pressing of plates. Came across the following in my travels: Click here Don't think we'll be using anything like it for The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, but thought you might enjoy.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Bad news on the doorstep

Gob-smacked by the news that Angus & Robertson, one of Australia's largest bookshops have invoiced publishers for books they can't sell, and are attempting to charge publishers up front in order to stock their titles---or will refuse to stock them. Read full details here. However, if all the publishers signed an accord and refused to supply Angus & Roberston, it would be one empty bookshop very quickly and every bookshop could expand to fill the gap. Bad news turned good!


Friday_at_the_nobody_inn_2 Recent reads: Bombshells by Joanna Murray-Smith. A play in six parts, each with a different character played by the same actor. Quite enjoyed this, particularly the stories of overworked housewife Meryl Louise Davenport, bride-to-be Theresa McTerry and widow Winsome Webster. Am looking at it as a text to use at work, and think it'll do nicely along with a couple of novels and a film. Also finished with Caroline Smailes' In Search of Adam, which leaves me ready to start Mark Hayhurst's Friday at the Nobody Inn.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Desert Island Discs

Since posting a list of 10 books I'd happily revisit, and mentioning the radio program Desert Island Discs in passing, I've discovered it's still running ... into its 65th year! That's a stunning feat. However, with all those celebrities stranded on desert islands over so many years, what's even more amazing is that any islands are left on which to dump yet another. Not only this, but I can't get over the fact that no one's fully considered that you don't find many functioning record players washed up on desert island beaches, nor that you'd find an electricity grid and power socket to plug the thing into.

It all seems a tad cruel to pluck a celebrity from stardom, to encourage them 002to select 8 records, and then to abandon them on a desert island without any real chance of listening to the things. They might come in useful as frisbees, I guess, but the frustration would outweigh any pleasure. It's either cruel or pleasantly absurd.

Maybe the additional items they're allowed to take (a book, other than a religious or Shakespearian text, and an inanimate luxury, without any practical use) will somehow compensate for the futility of having carefully chosen the 8 records they can look at but can't hear.

Now, I can't just sit back and let other people create lists of their top 8 records without wanting to do the same. So, after great deliberation and much consternation at having to leave out a few hundred favourite tracks, here's my list:

  1. Amsterdam - Jacques Brel (David Bowie did a cover once---everyone's covered Brel---but the live version of Amsterdam, performed by the Belgian, reminds me of a small town in France[!] where I bought the album and had a great holiday)
  2. Mahli (remix) - Souad Massi (impossible not to tap your foot to, to start dancing to, to start bouncing round the room to)
  3. Soleá - Radio Tarifa (love the soulful passion of flamenco)
  4. Burn One Down - Ben Harper (probably not representative of Ben Harper at his best, but a fun song that'd remind me of his other work)
  5. Little Red Rooster - The Rolling Stones (couldn't choose between Muddy Waters and all the other Blues greats, but the Stones did a great job with this song)
  6. Exit Music (For a Film) - Radiohead (evocative and strongly linked in my head with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, which I like a lot)
  7. Trois Gymnopédies - Erik Satie (something classical, pensive, mellow)
  8. No Woman, No Cry - Bob Marley and the Wailers
If I was ranking these records, I'd have to put No Woman, No Cry first. Which is why I've left it till last! It's a no-brainer for me. One of the best tracks of all time, with many excellent covers and a few terrible ones too. Many years 001 ago, when I was on the way home from Northampton School of Art and College of Technology, where I was doing my 'A' levels, a friend told me that a band called Bob Marley and the Wailers were playing in the town that night and that I should come along. I'd not heard of them at the time and thought they'd be a two-bit band so didn't go, but within a couple of months I'd learnt what I'd missed out on. Ouch!
  • For reading material, I'd probably want to take an encyclopedia. Something to dip in and out of and never quite finish. No beginning, no end.
  • For that little luxury, I'd either negotiate to take my collection of Northern Exposure DVDs (and something to watch all six series on) or, failing that, a large bottle of good Irish whiskey.
Well, that's me on my desert island. What about you?

Sunday, 29 July 2007

A post in praise of post

This post isn't about much at all, except post. Sorry.

I know it's unwise to begin with an apology, but on this occasion it needs to be said. You need to be aware, in case you're expecting something else. This way, when you get to the end---if you get to the end---and say, "All you've written about is post," then I can say: "Yeah, told you so."

009It's just a celebration, that's all.

I love receiving post. All post. Even bills, if there's nothing else. I don't discriminate too much. But especially parcels. Parcels are best.

A childish delight, which I feel no need to leave behind.

The arrival of a parcel is the thing I anticipate most when ordering books, DVDs, whatever, through the mail. I could easily become a mail-order junkie.

And Friday was a bumper day. One of the biggest hits in yonks. Better even than the lead-up to Christmas or a birthday. No letters, but three sizeable packages waiting to be opened.

The first was a book of course (and I'm now beginning to think I don't mind it so much when a bookshop can't supply a book and I've got to order it online, even Justice_birdthough I'm forking out the postage): In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes. Will start this in a week or so, because I'm engrossed in Jon Haylett's Cry of the Justice Bird at the moment. Am half-way through Justice Bird and loving it. It's hard to put the book down---fast-paced, action-packed, great descriptions, and so 'visual' I reckon it'd make a tremendous film---but I'm having to limit myself or I'll have no eyes left because I've got a few books on the go at work at the moment (Scott Anderson's excellent Triage, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex).

The second parcel was a package of trees to replace a couple I had to take down recently: another olive, a lime, a pomegranate. I spent yesterday planting them out. They might take, they might not. Some do, some don't. We're close to the sea and our soil isn't flash. It's a matter of trial and error.

The third parcel was a box of cabernet merlot from Margaret River---a wonderful wine and cheese producing area in Western Australia. But then all Australian wine is good. (Aside: I'm hoping that someone important from the Australian tourism industry or wine-making industry might read this post and offer to make me the 'Face of Australian Wine'. Not because I look like a wino, but because I say good things about Australian wine. As part of the deal, they'd send me a box of wine every week or so ... through the post, of course ... for as long as I remained coherent and said good things about our very excellent wine without growing to look too much like a wino.)

Talking of winos and post, finished reading Charles Bukowski's Post Office. The closing sentences of this book are some of the best closing lines in the history of fiction, I believe. I know it's a big claim, but I've been going around chanting them for a fortnight, enjoying the rhythm of the words and haven't got sick of them yet. Was going to quote them here, but thought that might be a spoiler, not that they give too much away in the sense of knowing who dies in Harry Potter and who doesn't, but Bukowski obviously wanted to wrap his novel up with those fine, final words and I'm not going to subvert that. As Gary pointed out in a comment to an earlier post, if you like Hunter S.Thompson, the chances are you'll like Post Office.

For three years I worked in the Post Office. In London and Cardiff. Maybe I worked there because of my early addiction to receiving post, the same way a junkie might aspire to becoming a chemist. Maybe I thought working amongst all that mail would be like receiving heaps and heaps of parcels everyday. It wasn't. But I'm not allowed to say anymore about working for The Royal Mail because when I quit I had to sign the Official Secrets Act (yes, really, no kidding), promising not to divulge any information I'd learnt whilst in its employ ... like the price of a first class stamp, I suppose. Stuff like that. So Mailboxmy lips are sealed; I don't want to be charged with treason.

Ssh. Maybe I've said too much already. Don't relish sewing mailbags.

Hope the postie doesn't get sick. Hope my mailbox doesn't stop working. Reckon I'd cold turkey after three days without post. Hmm, post. Told you so.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Harry Potter? Bah! Humbug!

It may not be as big as Christmas or New Year, but there’s no doubt about it---love it or hate it---it’s BIG.

Yes, it’s H.P. day ... and it’s global.

I wasn’t planning on posting about it, but it’s even infected me. And I say that because I reckon I’m immune (or resistant) to hype generally, and to dear old Harry in particular. I read the first book and may have started the second, and have enjoyed the films’ special effects well enough, but I’m no fan of the writing style J.K.R has adopted here for the same reason I never enjoyed most of Enid Blyton’s writing either (although definitely a fan of the Noddy books, which managed to scare and thrill me whenever Noddy's misadventures took him into the forest at night). All the same, I’ve got to admit I’m a fan of the J.K.Rowling/Harry Potter phenomenon. Love it.

Although many people look at me askance and some have even taken a step sideways when I’ve admitted I don’t like H.P. (as if they might be accused of associating with a heretic, as if I’ve denied the existence of god or, god forbid, declared myself a vegetarian), I relish the fact that here’s a book published for both children and adults, that people are ready to queue for, to spend decent money on, to jump into freezing lakes for, and that, beyond all else, has made reading a cool activity for one and all. All this.

My twenty-three year old daughter, home for a few days, had one question for me before she brought her train ticket: “Dad, do you think I’ll be able to get hold of a copy of Harry Potter?” And the first thing she did this morning was head into town to our tiny bookshop. There was no advertising on the window, no placard on the pavement inviting Potter fans to step inside, no copies of Deathly Hallows on the shelves, and she had to ask the owner if he had any to sell.

The hysteria surrounding the security of the book, the contracts demanding that none are released prematurely, makes itself felt in different ways I guess.

Our local bookseller mumbled something, reached under the counter and brought out a copy in a brown paper bag. He also slipped her a piece of folded paper. It had more the feel of a drug deal than a book purchase, but regardless of this she got the goods and is now ploughing through it. Has made page 190 as I post this. (And the piece of folded paper? A 20% discount off her next purchase. Good on him.)

In Canberra, where the temperature recently has hovered around 2 degrees, a man was so distraught when his Deathly Hallows reservation receipt blew into Lake Burley Griffin that he jumped in after it. Way to go! Unfortunately, when he was fished out, he’d failed to retrieve his receipt and was suffering from hypothermia and acute distress. To help him calm down apparently, a hospital doctor rang the bookshop to make sure they’d honour his lost receipt.

This all begs one question: What’s going to happen in the future? We might slightly change the way we celebrate Christmas or New Year from one year to the next, but we know they’ll come round again, sure as eggs is eggs. And as sure as golden eggs are golden eggs, isn’t it likely that someone somewhere will be desperately looking to repeat the phenomenon and introduce us soon to the next J.K.Rowling, the next Harry Potter? I hope so. I really do. Despite the hype. Because, whatever the genre, whatever the style, I love the fact that the publication of a book can create such a stir, and that someone will jump into a lake for the sake of a book. Good on you, J.K.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Hi-ho, hi-ho...

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's back to work I go.

After a fortnight's winter break, I've got to set the alarm again, pack a cut lunch, stop swearing so frequently, and get use to cramming all my writing, reading, messing about, etc, etc, into the late evenings and weekends.  Hi-ho, ho-hum.

*bites knuckles.  stifles sob*

Oh well, look at the positives: food on the table, wine in the glass, money to buy books ... and I enjoy the people I work with (staff and students)---perhaps because we operate on a similar frequency of insanity.  Can't be too bad, eh?

Anyway, just to help with getting over those back-to-work blues (*fades in strumming 12 bar blues on trusty air guitar*), thought I might post a couple of funnies that have been shared with me recently.

The first from my brother, who tolerated my ranting about conceptual art recently, about which he knows a world more than me.  (In the name of nepotism, click here to access his website!)  Although I'm no Luddite and regard my PC as one of my favourite toys, and have always managed most books quite well, I love this sketch and am still wondering why I identify so strongly with the idiot!  Click to view 'Introducing the Book'.

Secondly, because there's little like a witty insult to evoke a wry smile (unless you're the recipient), thought I'd list the following, which a friend e-mailed to me a couple of weeks back (thanks, Martin):

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."  (Winston Churchill)

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."  (Clarence Darrow)

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." (William Faulkner about Ernest Hemingway)

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."  (Groucho Marx)

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."  (Mark Twain)

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." (Oscar Wilde)

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend ... if you have one."  (George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill; followed by:)

"Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one." (Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw)

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."  (Stephen Bishop)

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."  (John Bright)

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."  (Irvin S. Cobb)

"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others."  (Samuel Johnson)

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."  (Paul Keating)

"He had delusions of adequacy."  (Walter Kerr)

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?"  (Mark Twain)

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."  (Mae West)

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."  (Oscar Wilde)
Hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-ho.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

On the shelf (or thereabouts)

Recently finished Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and Baber's Apple by Michael Marr.  I don't often laugh out loud when I'm reading, but Baber's Apple caught me out (deliciously) a number of times.  Loved the unique Babers_apple_and_running_with_sciss voice of Beulah, Baber's alter-ego, and the opportunities this device provided for getting into his head in an often hilarious way.  Baber completes a number of journeys, apart from his whacky adventure around Kazakhstan, and it was one of those books I didn't particularly want to end---to draw out the pleasure a bit longer---but became keen to see how everything would be resolved.  The book's moving around the family at the moment, and I reckon it's going to look pretty dog-eared by the end of its own journey, which is always a good sign.

Wasn't so keen on Running with Scissors, and only persevered with it because I'd been asked to read it.  Not because I found it too confronting, but because I found it too deliberately confronting ... to the extent that I got bored (or possibly desensitised) with each new excess.  I don't often read memoir and might've made the mistake of expecting there to be a similar exploration of character growth/insight through the experiences described that I'd look for in most novels.  The intention might have been to let each scene speak for itself, but I was left feeling that I didn't really know the young Augusten Burroughs any better at the end of the book than I did at the beginning---but didn't care either.

Books_on_estuarySometimes I find myself reading a few books at the same time and at the moment I've got three on the go: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson, Post Office by Charles Bukowski and A Blues for Shindig by Mo Foster.  (Yeah, yeah, I'm working my way through all the PaperBooks titles, and why not?)   Am almost at the end of The Angel Makers; close enough to say I've thoroughly enjoyed it, that I've found it compelling, and that the character of Sari is very hard not to sympathise with, if not empathise with.  When Siân read it---she grabbed it first---she was visibly tense at times, as she moved from one page to the next!  There's engagement!

Burning_bright_001 Have got Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright on the to-be-read pile.  Enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring, and have heard mixed reviews about Burning Bright, but I'm a fan of William Blake who features in this novel, so am looking forward to getting into it and making up my own mind.

And lastly, one of my prize acquisitions recently has been a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.  Every once in a while I discover a reference book that I make excuses for buying and enjoy placing on my bookshelf, and this is the latest additon.  It's got a wonderful collection of information---too much to describe here---and even covers 'First lines in fiction', with over 150 first lines cited.  Here, and in honour of everyone who finds sentences in nineteenth century novels a little unwieldy at times, is the first sentence from The Brewers_phrase_fable_001Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas:

'On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cuppolas are reflected, -- the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.'


To finish with, found my way to Harriet Devine's blog the other day.  Was particularly interested by her comments on Louisa May Alcott (Little Women, Good Wives) because one of my students has been researching Rose in Bloom recently, but then I got well and truly caught up in her other literary adventures.  A blog well worth a visit.